REVIEW: Michael Hurley and Meg Baird Syd Fest 2016
There is an inherent knowledge that signing up for a gig at St Stephen’s Church for Sydney Festival 2016 will be an experience that invites a myriad of feelings which only music and a Church setting can evoke. Meg Baird began her set at St Stephen’s Church sitting upon the stage, armed with her collection of folk songs, her delicate voice and her guitar. Baird sang her songs with purpose and her floating voice danced with the music. Her voice and the guitar chased each other, caught up to each other and at times overtook each other. The effect of this music provided the audience with a feeling of space. Space to allow us to absorb her ethereal sound and a space which matched the wonderfully vast space of St Stephen’s. This modern singer makes you think of Baez and Mitchell and the similarities are pleasing and reassuring.
Baird was followed by Michael Hurley, a folk veteran who was part of the Greenwich folk music scene in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Hurley’s performance added another layer to the softly sung folk lyrical style yet what makes Hurley interesting is his use of humour in his repartee and lyrics. Songs such as ‘Waitin’ for the aliens’ and ‘Extra Love’ invite us to enjoy music without taking it too seriously. The music tells us to ‘lighten up’ and enjoy the trip. Indeed, Hurley’s music has a strong ‘going home’ theme, a journeying of many sorts. Hurley gave us the opportunity to witness and experience music sung and played in the American tradition. What made tonight’s show such a treat was the opportunity to experience an artist for whom the roots of American music are not merely touchpoints (or “influences” as the serious critics like to say), but one who was part of the evolution itself. One working in the tradition of Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, rather than exclusively Dylan. Hurley is part of an ongoing journey of American music and his playing and singing is a pure reflection of this. He isn’t mining his country’s past, looking for inspiration in the way later generations have. He is part of the inspiration itself, as evidenced by the long line of other American singers and songwriters who cite him as a direct inspiration, current visitor to Sydney Gillian Welch being such an example.
Tonight’s performance was a unique opportunity to hear a voice and style of singing which just won’t exist in about a decade as its practitioners pass on. His method and technique is one borne of experience, time and place. Future artists can copy or mimic it with the aim of capturing something of its essence and emotional impact, but the voice itself and his gutsy guitar-playing can only be created by one of Hurley’s direct experience and immersion in American folk and country as it was evolving. So tonight’s audience were truly fortunate to be up close with a singer for whom authenticity isn’t a marketing concept, but an unknowing and subconscious part of his art.